CLEMSON - Clemson's 29-7 victory over South Carolina Saturday afternoon at Death Valley guarantees it a bowl bid. The concern now is how many Tiger players may have to miss the postseason.
An ugly, bench-clearing brawl erupted after a fourth-down incompletion by Syvelle Newton late in the fourth quarter, a fracas which lasted for several minutes and saw a number of punches thrown by players on both sides.
Toward the end of the incident, Clemson senior Yusef Kelly emerged from the East end zone with a Gamecock helmet which had been displaced during the fight. Kelly held the helmet over his head as he paraded behind the Tigers' bench, before throwing it into the Clemson crowd.
The melee wasn't broken up until dozens of police officers took to the field and, along with coaches, helped separate the players. Amazingly, there were no ejections and only offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called.
Tapes of the incident are subject to review by both the ACC and the SEC offices and each school, any one of which could levy suspensions if deemed necessary.
If multiple suspensions are handed down, which is a possibility, Clemson Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips said he doesn't know if the ACC would force all to be served in a bowl game or, perhaps, allow any returning players to serve the time next season.
"I've never been involved in anything like this," he said. "I'll be learning along with everyone else."
The teams weren't allowed to meet at midfield for a postgame hand shake, though individual players from both squads made their way to meet friends on the other side.
Afterwards, both coaches had thoughts on what transpired.
"I don't want to minimize the fight, but this is a very intense sport and a very intense rivalry, and we apologize for what took place," Clemson's Tommy Bowden said. "This is not what our program is about. We addressed this in the locker room prior to the game (and) we will certainly review what took place and determine if there should be any suspensions."
"We are going to look at the tapes and see if we need to suspend anyone," Holtz said. "It discourages me, this is the first time this has ever happened to me...There is no excuse. I take responsibility. There is no place in football for it."
The incident overshadowed the three main storylines heading into the game - Clemson's continued dominance in this series; the Tigers' search for a bowl berth; Holtz's pending retirement and the arrival of Steve Spurrier to Gamecock country.
Reggie Merriweather continued to be the workhorse in Clemson's running game, gaining 125 yards on 28 carries. His three touchdown runs (3, 7 and 12 yards) provided the meat of the Tigers' offense, while Jad Dean added three short field goals (21, 24 and 20 yards).
Merriweather's best work came on the opening drive of the second half.
Leading 14-7, Clemson opened the third quarter at its own 20 yard line and proceeded to drive 80 yards in 14 plays, eating up 7:14 off the game clock. Merriweather carried seven times for 48 yards on the drive, including the final 12 yards on a quick burst up the middle for his third touchdown.
"I was probably a little surprised at how well we ran the ball," Bowden said. "You never know each week, you go in with a plan, but you never know how it will work...Our offensive staff did a good job of developing a plan for this week."
After that Clemson added the three Dean field goals, two coming later in the period - one off an interception by defensive lineman Cory Groover. It was the third pick by a Clemson defensive lineman this season.
South Carolina's only score came on a busted play kept alive by quarterback Syvelle Newton's scrambling ability. Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, Newton reversed out of what looked like a sure sack, squared his shoulders and fired toward the endzone. Running back Cory Boyd was on the payoff end 54 yards later, making the catch behind Clemson cornerback Tye Hill.
It was the only down moment for Hill, who broke up four passes on the day. His total breakups for the year now sit at 21, four better than the previous school record.
The defense was solid all afternoon, limiting USC to just 66 rushing yards and 197 yards of total offense.
"I thought it was big by our defense to stop them in the third quarter," Bowden said. "When you can go a whole quarter and give up negative yards on offense it gives you a chance to win the game. When our defense brings that kind of attitude...then we are going to have a chance to win a lot of games."
The victory means Clemson, at 6-5, is officially bowl eligible. While nothing is official at this point, there seems to be strong indications the team will return to Boise, Idaho for the second time in four seasons to play in the MPC Computer (formerly Humanitarian) Bowl.
That, or any other possibilities, likely will be disclosed next week.
As for Holtz, he refused to address his pending retirement in the postgame press conference, other than to drop yet another obvious hint.
"I will address that on Monday in a press conference, but you wouldn't have to know President Bush got elected to know what my future is."